A room without a view – the housing crisis hits home

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    The back door of my house in Wellington fell off once. It was so rotten that the wood holding the lock and hinges gave way and my flatmates and I woke to a windy kitchen and our door lying peacefully in the grass, having succumbed to old age. 

    Rest in Peace? Not likely. We dragged it from its grave and nailed it back in place, lacking the skills to create a working exit. Someone phoned the landlord, but the door was never repaired while I lived there. This was typical of the Wellington flats I lived in during the early 80s – freezing pre-war cottages stuck together with mould and nails which pre-dated the Titanic. One of the rooms I rented cost $24 a week.   

    I thought about my old digs in Newtown when I heard the news about Loafers Lodge, a few minutes’ walk away from our flat in (I’m not making this up) Mein Street. 

    And I thought about the door-which-was-no-longer-a-door. Like my flatmates and I, Loafers Lodge residents had one ground-floor exit after their front door was, according to reports, bolted shut. My flat had three bedrooms; Loafers Lodge, a four-storey building, had 92. 

    As I write this, the Loafers Lodge website has not been edited; there is no online memorial here for the men, mostly in their 60s, who died inside its walls – Kenneth Barnard, Peter O’Sullivan, local identity Liam Hockings, Melvin Parun (brother of tennis great Onny Parun), and Mike Wahrlich, a beloved figure known to Lambton Quay passersby as ‘Mike the Juggler’. 

    The lodge website still promotes “Wellington’s most convenient and affordable accommodation option,” although some of the rooms, which cost up to $240 a week, didn’t even have windows. 

    As many have pointed out, the fire has highlighted New Zealand’s chronic lack of safe, secure and affordable housing. Residents lived there, reported Stuff journalist Mike White “because they had no other option, or had been sent there by bureaucrats.”

    Bernard Hickey, quoting Stats NZ, has pointed out that New Zealand has the highest proportion of stressed renters in the world, with just over a quarter of renters paying more than 40 percent of their disposable income on rent. In March 480,104 households needed to use food banks (NZ Food Network). These figures are related.

    Waiheke has nothing comparable to a single boarding house like Loafers Lodge. If it did, many of its rooms would be occupied by people now either living in vehicles or forced to leave the island, squeezed out of Waiheke life through no fault of their own. 

    Waiheke Community Housing Trust’s Paul Carew told Gulf News recently that the issue on Waiheke is not the supply of housing. “Our problems are the distribution and regulation of our housing. It is a policy crisis. [The trust] has advocated for some time for a change in the planning rules that favour visitor accommodation over permanent rental housing.”

    Carew and the trust have been tireless in their efforts to improve Waiheke’s stock of affordable rentals. This is also a goal of Auckland Council, on paper anyway, although their lack of support for social housing projects, documented in many Gulf News stories – fast-tracking building permits might seem a no-brainer – is incomprehensible.  

    The trust’s latest project is finding a site to lease long term for a generous donation – a three-bedroom bungalow, gold dust on Waiheke. “We would take care of all the permit applications and would rent it to a working family in need of affordable long-term accommodation.” 

    Our economy can only be buoyed by rents which don’t grotesquely impoverish renters. Most political parties acknowledge, however grudgingly, the critical role that governments, both state and local, have to play in the supply of affordable housing. As New York Times writer Francesca Mari, who could have been writing about New Zealand, put it, “The problem with housing in the United States is that it has been locked in as a means of building wealth, and building wealth is irreconcilable with affordability.”

    Supercities from New York to Singapore to Sydney are bedeviled by soaring rents; a fascinating outlier is Vienna, a tourist mecca in which, writes Mari, 80 percent of households choose to rent; 43 percent of all housing is insulated from the market and rents reflect rates set by law. Limited-profit housing associations can only charge rents which reflect their costs. 

    As Auckland becomes a supercity, it must find a better way of supporting people who rent. The Opposition’s latest housing U-turn has been criticised for reducing state house construction without talking to local government and forcing Auckland commuters to drive further in a city which desperately needs to cut traffic congestion and emissions. Dileepa Fonseka’s column in BusinessDesk on the party’s new housing policy (titled Our ‘grown-up’ moment on housing is over) groans: “[Under National] councils are supposed to provide 30 years of housing capacity “immediately”… Anyone with experience in local government knows combining the words “council” and “process” rarely results in any outcome you could ever classify as “immediate”. • Jenny Nicholls

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